Hot on the heels of the UK government’s announcement of its ambitious new Science and Technology Framework, reports are buzzing that the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) has submitted for approval plans for an £800 million (~$950 million USD) supercomputer. Those plans, however, have not yet been approved by the UK Treasury, and officials who spoke to Bloomberg are skeptical that they will be approved in time for the unveiling of the budget next week.
The last month has seen a tremendous emphasis on science and technology by UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, who has framed his push as a move to “cement [the UK’s] place as a global science and technology superpower by 2030 [by] pursuing transformational technologies like AI and supercomputing [and] attracting top talent[.]” To that end, he established DSIT in February, consolidating the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the digital components of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Just two days ago, DSIT unveiled its sweeping Science and Technology Framework and an initial package of projects in service of that framework.
Those initial projects constitute some £370 million (~$440 million USD) in funding toward items like PhD funding in AI research and the establishment of a new quantum computing research center – but toward the end of the list is one major item with no named budget: “Plans to set up an exascale supercomputer facility – the most powerful compute capability which could solve problems as complex as nuclear fusion – as well as a program to provide dedicated compute capacity for important AI research[.]” This, presumably, is the supercomputer in question (the exascale Frontier system cost around $600 million USD).
Bloomberg reported that the massive £800 million investment is being pitched as a boost to the domestic economy, with plans involving components and systems provided by UK tech firms. Still, while DSIT was hoping to unveil the supercomputer plans soon, the treasury – which is set to unveil its spring budget next week – has reportedly not yet given the thumbs-up to the project, with the treasury looking for DSIT to carry more of the funding burden with its own budget. Negotiations between the two departments are ongoing.
If the budget for the system is approved, the UK would be the fourth known entity to fund an exascale supercomputer. China’s exascale systems – never officially unveiled – crossed the threshold first; the U.S. unveiled the first public exascale supercomputer, Frontier, last May; and the European Union is set to begin building its first exascale system, Jupiter, this year. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting on the launch of the massive weather and climate supercomputer being built by Microsoft for the UK’s Met Office – that system was announced in 2020.